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Photo Essay: The Carnival Ice Wonderland of Beijing’s Beihai Lake

Imagine sitting on a miniature sled and gliding around a frozen lake, propelling yourself with two metal spikes, whizzing between small children on ice bicycles and tiny ice gondolas. 
For a child of the subtropics like myself, frozen lakes and rivers are a fantastic spectacle, so on this trip to Beijing there was only one place I wanted to see: the frozen wonderland of Beihai Lake, where for an hour or an afternoon you can glide around the ice on a chair on skates, Chinese style of course. 

Beijing can be a brutal place in winter – bitingly cold, densely polluted, shuttered and closed against the chill – but on the right day, it can also be stunningly beautiful. Out on the ice, surrounded by the madness and colour of hundreds of children on oversized cartoon character sleds and overshadowed by a gorgeous temple stupa, it’s as good as it gets.

Beihai – Details
Ice sledding is available every day through winter at Beihai (Wenjin Jie entrance), not far from the back of the Forbidden City. 
Ice sleds start at 40 yuan for hire, for an hour or a whole day – basically as long as you can stand in the sub-zero temperatures (about an hour for most people).

Nan Shan 南山: Skiing Chinese Style

Skiing? In China?
Is that a thing?
It’s not the reason most people visit China, for certain. 
And as for the participation of the local population, I’d heard Chinese people approach skiing much the same way they approach, say, hot air ballooning. That is, you plan to do it once in your life so you can boast about it to friends, and you take millions of pictures of yourself doing it so you can post them on Weibo and say – oh yeah, this is me hot air ballooning. 
Young Chinese woman takes a classic ski selfie: note pouted lips, absence of actual skis.
I’d heard Chinese ski resorts were struggling because nobody stuck around for long enough to actually learn to ski, rather, they took a lot of photos of themselves in ski outfits at the snow, had one or two disastrous runs on the beginner slope, had some pot noodles and went home. It being all about the experience, rather than the development of long term skill that would guarantee repeated business winter after winter for the ski resorts.
Well, turns out that’s all rubbish.
From what I can see skiing and snowboarding are hot in China, and growing hotter by the minute.
We spent all of this last week skiing at Nan Shan Ski Village, about 75km north of Beijing, where I learned a few surprising things about the Chinese ski industry:
1. It’s Cheap
I must say I did wonder what kind of ski experience I was going to get for $25 a day. I imagined dodgy rope tows, creaking rusted lifts and people skiing in jeans.
Here’s what we actually got for $25 a day: 
Airconditioned shuttle bus to and from our hotel in Beijing
Ski hire and lift pass
Thirteen runs: Seven green, five blue, one black
$25 would buy me about 45 minutes’ ski time back home, and the prohibitive cost means we ski way less than we would like. Welcome to Ski China. It’s affordable.
2. It’s Well Run
The slopes are groomed, the lifts run like clockwork, and the ski hire shop is a well-oiled machine.
There is close attention to safety, and the longest time I spent queueing for a lift was five minutes. Impressive.
3. There’s Something for Everyone
Snowboard slope: beginners
Although it’s not a resort where advanced skiers might enjoy spending an entire week, Nan Shan has enough variety and complexity for everyone for several days. There’s a long steep black run, a snowboard park, mogul fields of varying levels of difficulty, beginner slopes aplenty (separated for skiers, kids and snowboarders – brilliant idea), a kids’ playground and two toboggan runs, one of which is actually a high-speed luge that starts on the mountaintop.
Snowboard slope: advanced
Flying Saucer Toboggan Run: super icy spin.

4. The Food is Great
Spicy noodles. Bibimbap. Hamburgers. Hot chocolate. And my personal favourite: fragrant lamb kebabs yang rou chuanr cooked on the outside grill overlooking the slopes.
Canada Ski Cafe – burgers, fries, sandwiches, hot chocolate, passable coffee.

Which is not to say there aren’t some classic Chinese moments on the slopes: the guy who stopped in the middle of a narrow run to take a business call on his smartphone; the Chinese princess who lost the plot close to the top of one of the slopes dissolutely kicked her skis and beanie down the mountain, sobbing loudly and dramatically. When someone on a passing lift called gave her grief the sobbing immediately gave way to a torrent of high octane abuse.
Or the messages over the loudspeakers:
“Child Wang, Child Wang, please return immediately to the Ski Cafe where your mother is waiting for you.” 
Half an hour later: 
“Child Wang, Child Wang, please return immediately to the Ski Cafe where your mother is still waiting for you”
Later still:
“Child Wang, Child Wang. Your mother is getting very angry. Return to the Ski Cafe at once!
Child Wang wasn’t having a bar of it. He had discovered the joy of skiing.
Nan Shan Ski: Details
Website:
Transport: 
A daily shuttle bus service leaves the San Yuan Qiao and Wudaokou areas in Beijing
40 yuan pp return
Departs 0830 daily
Returns 1630, 1700, 1730 daily
Pre-book seats the day prior by calling or texting 010 8909 1909
Ski hire and lifts: 
Weekdays 155 yuan full day (advance booking – call or text 010 8909 1909 the day before to reserve)
Weekends 255 yuan full day
Weekdays 260 yuan full day (purchase on arrival)
Weekends 390 yuan full day
Accommodation:
On snow accommodation is available at the Shirton Inn (580 yuan per night, standard double) or in a six-bedroom Norwegian Villa (4880 yuan per night).
Many people opt to stay in Beijing and travel to Nan Shan each day. The San Yuan Qiao area has a Novotel, an Ibis Hotel, and Oak Chateau apartments nearby.
Ski Clothing:
Ski and snowboard clothing (including goggles, helmets and gloves) can be hired at Nan Shan. There are several snow gear shops on site but be warned – they carry only expensive European and Canadian/American brands.
Decathlon sports store has several outlets in Beijing with a  wide range of ski and snow board clothing, helmets and goggles.

Shanghai Street Food #35 Pressed Pomegranate Juice: Shiliu Zhi 石榴汁

Street Foods are back! Today’s post is unforgivably short because I’m travelling – off to China for Chinese New Year! And I know those of you who are hard at work sometimes only have time for just a bite of China rather than a whole meal.
I think 2013 was street food’s year in every sense – the first International Street Food Congress was held in Singapore, and cities all over the world changed their minds about the perceived ‘risks’  of street food and approved legislation for street food trucks and street food precincts, bringing back a vivid street food scene to cities like Glasgow and Brisbane.
In China, of course, where street food has been part of a thriving food culture for centuries, that’s nothing new. But with tough new food safety laws in China being enacted with heavy justice, street food vendors may find 2014 the year they struggle to survive against the heavy hand of the law.  
So let’s celebrate street food, and support its ongoing role as an integral part of Chinese food culture, but also support it becoming cleaner and safer.
Today’s Shanghai Street Food is seasonal and special – fresh, tart, sweet pomegranate juice – shiliu zhi 石榴汁. The pomegranate vendors with their glass cases packed tightly with ripe pomegranates start to appear in Shanghai in autumn as the first pomegranates arrive from far western Xinjiang. 

The pomegranates have paler flesh, the colour of pale pink petals with blushes of rose, but are very juicy and have small seeds. Pomegranate seeds are not used in Chinese cooking but the juice is a popular seasonal treat for its value as a blood tonic, and the skin is used in traditional Chinese medicine for many ailments.

Each glass of juice is pressed freshly using a hand-operated press mounted on top of a tray back tricycle – it takes about three whole fruit for one glass.
The taste is fresh and acidic but also surprisingly sweet, and soothes the throat on those early cold dry days of winter. Come to think of it, it’s probably a very good tonic for polluted air…these vendors might be doing a roaring trade this year!
Pomegranate juice: About 10 yuan ($1.50) for a glass.
Shanghai Street Foods – The Complete Guide:
Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup
Number 32  Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken
Number 33  San Xian Doupi – Three Delicacies Wrapped in Tofu Skin

Number 34  Jidan Bing – savoury egg puffs
Number 35  Shiliu Zhi – Fresh pomegranate juice
Number 36  Dabing – big crispy pancakes

Chinese Soul Food: Homestyle Cooking From the Heart – Jiachang Cai 家常菜

Happy New Year to everyone! I’m feeling certain 2014 is going to be an exciting and adventurous year, and I hope it will be for you as well.

Never one to back away from a challenge, my ever-patient husband and children and I will spend much of this year restoring a decrepit, beautiful heritage house built in 1891 which will become our new home. I’m just jumping to get started, but there will be plenty of travel too – I leave for China next week to travel to Beijing, Guizhou, Yunnan and Shanghai, and April will see me attending the Miao Sister’s Meal Festival in Guizhou for the second time. A greatly anticipated trip to Sweden, Scotland and France is planned for mid-summer.

And of course, The Book. The book of our travels in China I’ve been writing for a year now, a struggle and a joy in equal measure but still a fledgling, will, I hope, find wings and take flight this coming year.

I’d love to know of your plans this year for food, travel and creative projects too – please fill me in!

I want to start the year with a post I’ve been planning to write for a long time. It’s all about Chinese home style cooking, known as jiachang cai 家常菜, a style of simple and unpretentious food made at home for those close to the cook – loved ones, friends, and guests.

Jiachang cai is bangers and mash, it’s southern fried chicken, it’s coq au vin, it’s black pudding and tatties. It’s a sticky plate of pulled pork or a fragrant bowl of herby chicken soup. It’s cheesecake and apple cake and red velvet cake, and all the kinds of cake that make you think of home.

It’s the food your mother makes when you come home for the holidays, it’s the food you cook your children every day.

It’s soul food, straight from the heart.

If you were to ask someone for their definition of jiachang cai it would probably vary enormously according to their culinary postcode and family history, but a few things are essential: the food must be simply prepared, simply presented, without fancy or hard-to-find ingredients. 

It has much in common with it’s country cousin, nongjia cai 农家菜 or peasant food, which is also simply prepared and presented, but is typically eaten on location at the farm where the food is grown, prepared and butchered by the farmer herself, right beside the table. I’ll write a more detailed post on nongjia cai in coming months.


Jiachang cai, on the other hand, can be eaten in in a simple restaurant or in someone’s home, and the ingredients bought rather than grown.
A typical jiachang cai restaurant, Qinghai Province

There are dishes ubiquitous to every jiachang cai menu – sour shredded potato with chill (suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝), smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar (liang ban huang gua 凉拌黄瓜), tomato stir-fried with egg (fan qie chao ji dan 番茄炒鸡蛋), and fish-fragrant pork (yu xiang rou si 鱼香肉丝) to name just a few, yet even these very popular jiachang dishes vary enormously from place to place, reflecting local tastes, ingredient availability and cooking styles.


Take sour shredded potato, for example – suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝 - a dish of finely shredded potato stir-fried with dried chill, a little shredded green pepper, and a splash of vinegar until the potato slivers have just softened. 

Every Chinese cook has their own version of this dish – in Guizhou the dried chillies are kept hanging over the cooking fire so they impart a rich smokiness to the dish, and in the east a little sugar sometimes makes its way into the dish to counteract the sourness of the vinegar. In Sichuan chili becomes the dominant flavour, and in parts of Yunnan the dish has metamorphosed into a fried cake made of potato shreds studded with flecks of chill – as though the cook just dashed out of the kitchen for five minutes while cooking and came back to find the entire thing melted together into a wonderful crisp-bottomed potato cake.   

Here’s a taste of jia chang cai from all points of the compass in China – taste the diversity for yourself.

NORTH

  • Sour shredded potato with chili and peppers
  • Smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar
  • Stir-fried green peppers with pork

In Inner Mongolia the bitter cold means hotpot is a popular homestyle dish, served with (clockwise from top)
  • finely sliced mutton
  • pickled chilies
  • chive flower paste
  • red fermented tofu
  • pickled garlic
NORTH-EAST
  • Boiled peanuts with soy beans 
  • Chitterlings fried with peppers and black wood ear fungus

EAST

From Shanghai and Zhejiang province homestyle dishes are cooked with a light touch:

  • Sliced wawa vegetable stems steamed then stir-fried with a dash of baijiu liquor
  • Tofu strips fried with pork and wilted greens
  • Soy cooked chicken
  • White-poached Chicken  
  • Steamed freshwater shrimp
  • Smoked dried carp
SOUTH-EAST
Many jia chang restaurants, like this one in southern Hunan, have no written menu but allow you to choose from what is fresh that day and have it cooked to order (any way you like, as long as it’s with a handful of sharp, searing fresh red chili) :
  • sliced pig’s ear
  • fat pork
  • pork ribs
  • squid
  • shrimp
  • fresh pork intestines
  • chicken gizzards

Guizhou jiachang cai, clockwise from top:
  •  egg fried with chives (also at bottom)
  • fish-fragrant eggplant, Guizhou style
  • plain fried potato
  • sour shredded potato with smoked chili
  • fried greens
  • home-smoked bacon slices – la rou

SOUTH
In the far south of Yunnan the dishes begin to look very different – inspired by local Dai culture and the hot, tropical climate.
  • fried pork intestine with local herbs and chill
  • fermented chill sauce
  • wild herb and peanut sauce
  • cold vegetables
  • wilted greens
  • crunchy fried pig skin
  • fermented chill with local herbs
  • assorted meats – chicken, fish, pork, pig’s ear

CENTRAL CHINA
Sichuan food has a deserved reputation for heat, but homestyle Sichuan food is often a different story:
  • pork bone broth
  • baked yam
  • pickled green chilies
  • fat pork slices
  • poached chicken
  • pickled vegetables
  • rice steamed with jujubes
  • steamed squash


WEST
The arid lands of Xinjiang produce few vegetables, and so mutton with bread is a staple. Served here with clear broth and tea scented with cinnamon and saffron.

NORTH-WEST

In the sparsely populated north-west homestyle means one thing – noodles. Served here with cold sliced beef, la jiao chili paste, cilantro and shallots. A dish of clear soup is usually served alongside.

That’s all on our culinary tour of jiachang cai – I don’t know about you but now I’m really, really hungry. Let’s eat!